Business narcissism, for and against

Business narcissism, for and against

Maccoby, Michael

In tumultuous times, people tend to seek leadership from personalities Freud described as “narcissistic.” Because business today is in a time of great change, such leaders are increasingly to be found at the helm of big corporations. This can be both good and bad for the companies involved.

On one hand, business leaders of what might be called the productive narcissist type are often visionary, charismatic risk takers. They not only have brilliant ideas; they can also talk colleagues into carrying those ideas out.

Bill Gates of Microsoft, lack Welch of General Electric, and Pehr Gyllenhammer, Volvo’s former CEO, are all narcissistic leaders who took their firms to new heights.

But Gyllenhammer is also an example of narcissism’s downside. Overly impressed by his successes, he quit listening to colleagues and tried to merge his Swedish firm with Renault, the French automaker. This move proved to be so unpopular that Gyllenhammer was forced to resign.

Business narcissists often have certain negative traits that can undermine the positive ones. These include:

Sensitivity to criticism. Because they are thin-skinned, narcissistic leaders tend to be emotionally isolated people who do not tolerate dissent well. They pick yes-men as subordinates, thus shutting themselves off from useful feedback.

Lack of empathy. Makers of dramatic decisions, narcissistic leaders are usually little interested in the disruption such decisions cause in others’ lives. Narcissists can be brutally exploitive. They are rarely well-liked.

Distaste for mentoring. Intolerant of independent thinking in others, narcissistic leaders see no need to mentor talented subordinates. They want to control, not teach.

Certainly more interested in controlling others than in understanding themselves, narcissists are often reluctant to undergo psychotherapy-which is unfortunate. They may drift into paranoid thinking that can be destructive to both their companies and themselves.

From Michael Maccoby, Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the inevitable Cons,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000, pp. 68-77.

Copyright Catholic Health Association of the United States Mar/Apr 2000

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